Is Google Making Us Stupid or Smart?

Abstract

This article examines the controversial issue of whether the intensive use of the Internet affects the human mind. Researchers, such as Nicholas Carr, argue that excessive Internet use harms thinking and reading skills due to shifts in reading strategies and that the overload of information on the Web may not be valued properly. In contrast, others claim that the Web actually facilitates mental abilities, by the practice of rapid searching and provides users with efficient work tools.

Is Google Making Us Stupid or Smart?

A Review of Some Current Writings

Robin Braverman

Introduction

During the past two centuries the world has witnessed an explosion of technological advances. In transportation there was the development of the train, automobile, and airplane. Communications were revolutionized by the telegraph and telephone. Without fail, some people who lived through turbulence caused by the introduction of these new technologies questioned the impact of these innovations on society. In a similar vein, in our times, some ask if we are being dehumanized by our iPhones, GPS systems, and MP3s. Has a new religion come about with artificial intelligence at its center? There has been much debate about the computer, and specifically about the effects of the Internet on cognition and the human brain.

Many respected writers and thinkers have contributed to this debate, and a plethora of articles and books have been published lately arguing both sides of the issue. While many writers claim that the Internet has a negative, damaging effect on the brain and cognition, others see the benefits of technology in helping us achieve the previously unachievable and freeing us from many time-consuming activities.

This assessment is timely, as the Google Generation—a term coined for those born after 1993—is now starting college, and it is important to understand how their learning has been affected by computers, and how teaching techniques should be adapted to meet their needs. (Thornton 2010). Even though it is an important topic, there is not space in this article to consider the claims that the Internet has a dehumanizing effect on people and their relationships. This article thus reviews both sides of the important debate concerning the positive and negative aspects of the Internet on cognition.

The Internet is Making Us Stupid

Nicholas Carr, a past editor of Harvard Business Review and a writer on business, culture, and technology, grappled with this question in his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (2008). He later expanded his thesis in a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr claims that the Internet is damaging our brains, robbing us of our memories and deepest thoughts, fragmenting our attention, and destroying our normal introspective reading by turning it into a “skimming” activity (2008). He cites Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, to back up his assertions, and argues that in our information- and hyperlink-dense world, where people are constantly using the Internet and Google, our brains are being rewired in a way that hinders sustained attention, reading, and thinking.

In 2008, a study was undertaken by the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER) at the University of London. The aim of this project was directed at the “Google Generation” to research the effects of the Internet on their learning and research skills. This article also makes reference to readers as “jet skiers skimming over material they would once have read in detail.”  The study found that:

  • Information literacy of young people has not improved with widening access to technology, and, in fact, computers hide some problems
  • Internet research shows that the speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in actually evaluating the information in any way
  • Young people have a poor understanding of their information needs and, therefore, find it difficult to master effective search strategies
  • Young people often have an unsophisticated mental map of what the Internet is and a shallow understanding of it
  • For many, Yahoo or Google are the primary search engines they use
  • The Google Generation has been called the “cut and paste generation” and plagiarism issues are also involved

Thus, some of these conclusions of the CIBER Project are similar to Carr’s, i.e., that young readers, too, are more often than not, skimming over material and not reading in depth. Also, they do not spend a lot of time evaluating material, illustrating more of a skimming activity—not sustained, deep reading.

With related conclusions about the negative effects of the Internet on cognition and reading, psychology professors Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons believe that:

Google is not making us stupid, PowerPoint is not destroying literature, and the Internet is not really changing our brains. But they may well be making us think we’re smarter than we really are, and that is a dangerous thing. (Chabris and Simons 2010)

They do not accept that the Internet is fundamentally changing our cognitive functions. Rather, in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, they claim that as information becomes more readily available, familiarity grows, and with this, an illusion of knowledge is fostered, which they believe is dangerous, leading to “individuals becom[ing] dumber as a result.” Thus, in their writings and research, they believe that people believe they have more knowledge than they really do, and the end result is the same—people are getting “dumber” as they write. Individuals are more familiar with and have access to an overabundance of information, yet they are really not knowledgeable in a deeper way.

Similarly, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD, writes in “Torah in the Digital Age” that technology has basically changed human beings and the Internet “has already begun to shape the ways in which we relate to one another.”  He sees positive aspects of human culture, such as letter-writing and book reading, rapidly becoming obsolete, thus confirming concepts similar to the previous writers mentioned. In a similar vein, Rabbi Aharon Hersh Fried, PhD, and Chaim Fried, Engineering Manager at Google, also warn about the impact of technology in “The Impact of Technology on the Religious Personality” (2011). Technology, they claim, has affected man in the following four areas: consciousness; interpersonal relations and communication; respect for privacy; and sensitivity to truth. They discuss this in detail in this article, and make another strong point that:

In a world in which Facebook alone makes up a whopping 9 percent of Web traffic, has an active user base of over 600 million people, and has, in certain countries, 80 percent of the population engaged in social networking, we are all vested, and to a degree, all addicted. (Fried and Fried 2011)

They also warn that technology is potentially a great tool, and that we must be careful that it remains our tool; we should not allow it to turn us into its tool. Regarding computer addiction, this addiction has all the properties of other addictions and serious implications on behavior and the brain.

Another significant article on the effects of technology was written by Jaron Lanier, an author of the new book entitled You Are Not a Gadget, and partner architect at Microsoft Research for the New York Times (2010). Lanier’s concern is with robots, machines, and artificial intelligence and how these are reshaping our concept of a person. “We think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people…the Internet, as a whole, is claimed to perform the creative thinking, the problem solving, the connection making. This is a devaluation of human thought.” He believes that in human improvement, there are still choices and he advises scientists and engineers to present technology in ways that do not confound these choices. Here, his opinion is that the Internet is performing functions which are generally functions of the human brain— of creative thinking and problem solving — creating an artificial intelligence.

The Internet is Making us Smart

At the other end of the spectrum, there are also many arguments of the advantages of the Internet, not least of which is its necessity in today’s world. Diametrically opposed to the CIBER study is a survey by Pew Internet entitled “The Future of the Internet IV,” which revealed information about the effects of the Internet on human intelligence and about the dissemination of information. As part of this research project, a survey of almost 900 Internet stakeholders was undertaken of how the Internet is affecting human intelligence and how information is being shared and rendered.

The survey concludes that:

  • Google will not make us stupid: 76% of these experts interviewed agreed with the statement
  • By 2020, use of the Internet will have boosted human intelligence with people becoming smarter and making better choices as a result of unprecedented access to information

Another study presenting groundbreaking information was conducted by Professor Gary Small, who holds the Parlow-Solomon Chair on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles Semel Institute for Neuroscience Human Behavior. Professor Small concludes that “Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function,” or in other words, “Internet searching may engage a greater extent of neural circuitry not activated while reading text pages but only in people with prior computer and Internet search experience” (Small et al. 2009). More of this theory is outlined in his book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alternation of the Modern Mind. This seems to be the first official study highlighting brain activation in the brain regions that control decision-making and complex reasoning while using the Internet. While there are limitations to his research, due to the small number of subjects with prior Internet experience, this is new datum from which Small concludes that Internet use can lead to physical changes in the brain that will change the way we think and can be beneficial for brain functioning.

A further voice supporting the benefits of the Internet is Jamais Cascio, who asserts that the human brain evolves to meet challenges and that, as a result, our intelligence has been enhanced. According to Cascio, people  have actually gotten smarter and the human brain evolves to meet challenges. Cascio sees the human ability to cope with catastrophe and disaster over the years as proof that our ever-evolving brain is programmed to meet all challenges by “getting smarter.” Cascio claims that we are “getting smarter” and making unbelievable accomplishments in many areas thanks to various ingenious technological developments, such as real-time data from satellites, global environmental databases, cross-connected scheduling systems allowing anyone to assemble multimodal travel itineraries within seconds, and powerful simulations and massive data allowing physicists to visualize, understand, and debate models of an 11-dimension universe (2009). In regards to the Internet, he claims that, in opposition to Carr, it is actually improving our overall ability to think.

The above examples illustrate that our brain is changing to meet the newest challenges of our age. We are becoming sophisticated and capable in ways never imagined before, ways which move us to a new time and place. It is even fair to say that people not moving forward with modernity, who fail to use these “augmentations” (Tech Crunch), will actually fall behind because of the many people on this track using these “augmentations.”  Other award-winning authors, such as Carl Zimmer, also point out how the Internet is actually making us smarter, not dumber, heightening our intelligence, as he wrote in Discover Magazine (2009), and Damon Darlin indicated in his New York Times article, “Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds” (2008). Nick Bilton also confirms this attitude in his New York Times article, “The Defense of Computers, The Internet and Our Brains” (2010).

Conclusion

Technology and digitalization are in a state of flux and transition, and it is still too early to make final conclusions about its positive and negative effects. Hopefully, the material presented in this paper has provided some food for thought about this complex subject. We must recognize that technology has already had an enormous impact on how we think today and will continue to do so, spurring us to carefully consider both sides of this crucial debate, and be cautious about making any final assessments.

References

Bilton, Nick. 2010.”The Defense of Computers: The Internet and Our Brains.” New York Times, June 22.

Carr, Nicholas. 2008. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August, 56-63.

Carr, Nicholas. 2008. The Shallows:What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Cascio, Jamais. 2009.”Get Smarter.” The Atlantic, July/August.

Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, UCL (CIBER). 2008. “Information Behavior of the Researcher of the Future.” Accessed January 5, 2009. www.ac.uk/media/ documents/programmes/reppres/ gg_final_keynote _ 11012008.pdf.5.

Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010.”Digital Alarmists are Wrong.” Los Angeles Times, July 25.

Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. New York: Crown.

Darlin, Damon. 2008.”Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.” New York Times, September 21.

Fried, Rabbi Aharon Hersh, PhD., and Chaim E. Fried. 2011. “The Impact of Technology on the Religious Personality.” Jewish Action  71(3):36–39.

Lanier, Jaron. 2010.”The First Church of the Robotics.” New York Times, November 24.

Pew Research Center. 2011. “Future of the Internet IV.” Accessed February 19, 2011. http://www. pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Future-of-the-Internet-IV.aspx.

Small, Gary W., Teena D. Moody, Prabha Siddarth, Susan Y. Bookheimer. 2009. “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching.” American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 17(2):116-126.

Thornton, Stephen. 2010. “From ‘Scuba Diving’ to ‘Jet Skiing’?” Information Behavior, Political Science, and the Google Generation. Journal of Political Science Education 6(4):353–368.

Weinreb, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh, PhD. 2011.”Man in the Technological Age.” Jewish Action 71(3):32–34.

Zimmer, Carl. 2009. “How Google Is Making Us Smarter.” Discover Magazine. February 15.

1 Comment

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  1. Reader

    [Concerning Robin Braverman’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid or Smart?”]

    Very interesting article that puts the use of internet tools in a different light.

    Thank you, Robin!

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